Ray Isle, Food & Wine Magazine

Ray Isle, Food & Wine Magazine

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. After all, they are the ones who help tell our stories, review our wines, and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges, and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.

Ray Isle, Food & Wine MagazineRay Isle is one of the wine world’s foremost writers and speakers. He has been writing about wine, spirits and cocktails for 20 years, regularly appears on national television and in other media, and speaks at wine and food events around the globe.

Isle is the executive wine editor at Food & Wine magazine, and the wine and spirits editor for Travel + Leisure. He writes Food & Wine‘s monthly “Bottle Service” column and contributes regular print and online features about wine, spirits and wine-related travel to both brands. His articles have also appeared in DeparturesThe Washington PostWine & SpiritsTime and others. Isle has been nominated three times for the James Beard Award in beverage writing and is a four-time winner of the IACP Award for Narrative Beverage Writing; his work has also appeared in The Best American Food Writing. His book, The World in a Wineglass: The Insiders’ Guide to Artisanal, Sustainable, Extraordinary Wines to Drink Now, was published by Scribner Books in November 2023.

How did you come to wine and wine writing?

I didn’t grow up in a wine-drinking family at all. But during graduate school in Boston, where I was studying literature and creative writing, I started to get interested in wine.

Following that, I worked in a rare bookstore in Washington, D.C.; for some reason the owner subscribed to the Spectator (the English magazine, not the U.S. wine publication), and Auberon Waugh’s wine columns caught my eye. His writing was witty enough to make what I thought was a fairly dry subject surprisingly entertaining. I started buying wine more regularly.

That probably would have been it, except for another graduate fellowship. This one was in the Bay Area (at Stanford), and thus put me close to wine country. I started going to tasting rooms then learned that you could work bottlings for small wineries in exchange for wine (excellent on a grad student budget). Finally, I worked harvest as a cellar-rat intern for two years. After that, I looked at academia, looked at the wine world and thought, “The hell with this, I’m switching to wine.” It took a while to get the wine and the writing together in one job, though.

You write for both wine and travel publications. How are those readerships different? Where do they intersect?

I write for two “and” magazines (or media brands), in a sense. Food & Wine is a culinary magazine with a substantial wine focus; Travel + Leisure is a travel magazine with a hefty dose of leisure (which, I guess, wine falls into). The readerships are different in that the baseline content — recipes versus travel info — is service-oriented and fills a specific reader need. But wine intersects with both of those, regularly and interestingly.

I should probably note that both publications have very large consumer audiences, so my opportunities to write about the technical or business sides of wine are pretty minimal, even though I find those topics fascinating. It’s probably fair to say that, for both, I write primarily for the wine curious rather than the wine expert.

Your latest book, The World in a Wineglass, was released in November 2023. What’s unique about the book, and what prompted you to write it?

I think it’s unique in that there haven’t been many large-scale looks at wineries around the world that are farming in ways that benefit the environment rather than damage it further. I tried to explore my sense that this is a global movement in wine. I also wanted to shine a light on wineries and winemakers, or vignerons (if you want to get French about it) who are working independently, not under a corporate umbrella, and making wines that truly express a sense of place and a personal vision. We sometimes forget that the human influence is part of terroir as well — or can be.

I was prompted to write it by a couple of things. One, an ongoing interest in environmental issues, just personally. Second, a sense that more and more wine buyers (particularly younger wine buyers) are increasingly interested in how a wine was made, who made it, and why they made it that way; [this is more important to them than how] it got 90-whatever points and tastes like blueberries…or blackberries…or smoked asphalt. Whatever.

Last, I was getting frustrated by what I saw as a relatively nonsensical division between “natural” wine and all the amazing vintners out there who are growing grapes organically or biodynamically or regeneratively (etc.) and working in essentially a low-intervention way yet somehow aren’t part of the natural wine realm. That seemed (and seems) pointlessly divisive. The real wall seems to me to be between wines made by an actual person in an actual place, from grapes farmed in a conscientious way, and those that are mass-produced, industrial, beverage-product wines.

What are your primary palate preferences?

Hm…I like cheese a lot? That’s a hard question to answer.

I taste an enormous amount of wine for F&W, so I try to keep my mind (and palate) open. But like a lot of people, I’ve grown weary of — or my palate has grown weary of — the kind of hyper-rich, super-luscious style that rolled over California and a lot of other places in the 2000s. On the other hand, “screamingly acidic” has never been my fave thing to drink, either. Balance is all, maybe.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? What advice would you offer upcoming content creators? 

It’s very, very tough to make a living as a writer today, not just as a wine writer. Of course, writing has never been a smart career choice for someone who wants to make money. If you want to make money, work with money — manage a hedge fund or whatever. But, even given that, the diminution of the number of print outlets for wine writers and the expansion of online outlets has been a big problem, because digital publishing pays so poorly.

I think, to survive right now, you have to expand the boundaries of what you do a lot: speaking gigs, writing jobs that aren’t pure journalism but pay the bills, teaching, you name it. I do think there’s less rigidity about living/working a kind of multi-realm professional existence than there once was (at least vis a vis wine writing), which is helpful. I don’t know if the result of that is that journalistic ethics fall by the wayside. I hope not.

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I was once nearly beaten up by a wild turkey in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.

What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?

I’d like to write another book.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

That wine is a lot of fun, in addition to everything else it is. It doesn’t have to be pretentious, or daunting. And if someone’s making you feel that it is, they’re the wrong person to listen to.

What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.

Well, I’m very fond of the story I wrote about the wild turkey incident. It’s called Wild Turkey, appropriately enough: https://www.terrain.org/essays/8/isle.htm

But if you’d rather wine writing, then I think this story about Piedmont that I did not too long ago is one of my better ones. The url title is drab because of SEO obligations; click through for the actual title and story: https://www.foodandwine.com/travel/piedmont-travel-guide

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?   

Absolutely no clue. Writing about something else, though, I’d hope.

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I don’t score wines, because I think scores are innately reductive, at least for any wine that’s worth a score. I don’t usually taste blind, because I think the knowledge of who/how/why/where is important to understanding a wine. And I’m lucky to have the freedom to work that way.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?

F&W has a monthly editorial schedule. We work about 9 months out or more, for reasons that have much more to do with our test kitchen schedule than anything regarding wine.

How often do you write for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure

I write a monthly column for F&W, oversee all the wine content and write regular feature stories for both F&W and T+L. I don’t edit for T+L though, except to weigh in on freelance wine pitches sometimes.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? 

I try to but sometimes I run out of time. Generally, I think as a wine writer — or anyone in the realm of trying to live off creating ‘content’ — you have to be on social media these days. I don’t love that that’s the case. I’m pretty sure social media has been a pernicious influence on our society overall, but we’re definitely stuck with it. At least until AI comes along and decides humans should be eliminated.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I think that I have some minor influence within the wine sphere, but I don’t consider myself an “influencer” as a job, or career — at least as the word has come to mean. That said, I’m not sure there is a firm definition of what an influencer is, so it’s hard to spell out the difference between being a writer (or being a journalist, which is a subset of that) and being an “influencer.” I do think of myself as being a wine writer rather than a wine critic, though.

What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?

“Tread carefully. They bite”? I don’t know. I guess be civil, just as one would with anyone else.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Good publicists are an amazing resource for getting you information that you need, and also information that you might not have known you needed. It’s a very valuable relationship. Not-good publicists just send random pitch emails to everyone on a list that was purchased somewhere. Usually these come from agencies, though, not from publicists on staff at wineries.

What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?

The only thing that really frustrates me currently is our lead time at F&W, which is a pain in the neck in terms of vintage shifts.

Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

I’ve never been on a competition panel, so it’s hard to say. But if I were to be on one, I’d like to be there with people I like, who are a pleasure to spend time with.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

I would like to have met Andre Tchelistcheff. And I’d like to go back in time about 8,000 years to Gadachrili Gora in Georgia and actually see some of the people who first made wine doing exactly that. Though, since I don’t speak stone-age Georgian, I suspect the conversation would be limited.

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

With my family, if possible (it’s less easy these days, since my daughter is now in college in Rome). And/or, reading.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Most memorable was a 1984 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet, when I was first getting into wine. Or, more accurately, it was the first wine that lit up my mind and made me think, “Holy crap, this is amazing.”

What’s your cure for a wine hangover?

Don’t drink too much wine. Unfortunately, once you have the hangover, there’s not much cure for it. And they get worse as you get older.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

I don’t have one. There are too many that I love for too many different reasons.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

I cook a lot, so I don’t have a favorite recipe (though I do have a personal collection of my fave F&W recipes from over the years). For pairings, potato chips and Champagne are at the top of the heap. And duck breast and great older Burgundy is up there in the mix, for sure.

CARL GIAVANTI is in his 14th vintage of working with West Coast wineries as a public/media relations consultant. His background includes technology sales, digital marketing, project management, and public relations for more than 25 years. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com)

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